This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.
By Marcus Kolga, March 15, 2023
Recent reports of Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections have exposed the details and extent of this threat to our democracy. Yet Canadians have been warned for years by our intelligence community and experts, including the all-party National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), that foreign authoritarian regimes are actively and regularly interfering in our democracy.
The agents of these authoritarian regimes are not passively sitting and waiting for the next election cycle before striking again. Even today, they are probing our political environment to identify and exploit our vulnerabilities and intensify polarization on both the political left and right.
These actors seek out and ensnare morally compromised former diplomats, academics and officials to act as their surrogates in Canada and amplify their narratives.
And it’s not just our elections that are under threat. NSICOP has repeatedly warned that the fundamental rights and values of Canadians are threatened by hostile foreign state actors, and that diaspora or ethnocultural communities in Canada are intimidated and exploited in efforts to influence Canadian domestic and foreign policies. That Chinese, Russian and Iranian governments monitor and intimidate their critics and minority communities is well documented. Such transnational repression has left millions of Canadians vulnerable to authoritarian surveillance and intimidation, which threatens their freedoms as Canadians.
Over the past 12 months, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, and members of the Ukrainian community in Canada, have been targeted by hateful Russian state narratives that are intended to dehumanize and silence them. Many of those same narratives have been amplified by Canadian far-left and far-right domestic platforms that align with Vladimir Putin’s anti-NATO and xenophobic extremism.
While we may wish to believe that foreign authoritarians would prefer one Canadian political party over another, the truth is that they seek out and exploit issues that have the greatest potential to divide us – regardless of political affiliation. The Kremlin has exploited and amplified both sides of many socially sensitive issues in order to intensify divisions.
There is clear evidence that foreign regimes have manipulated our democratic process to punish candidates who are critical of them. During the 2021 federal election, now-former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu says he was targeted by a Chinese information operation after he supported a foreign influence registry – this would require Chinese government proxies advocating for Chinese interests in Canada to register with the federal government. This foreign interference certainly contributed to his election defeat, though its full impact is unknown.
While our federal elections are theoretically monitored for interference by the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force, political nomination processes fall below most radars. In districts where one party dominates, rigged nomination processes can ultimately determine who will represent that riding. A recent investigation by Global News found that at least one Toronto-area nomination process in 2019 may have been affected by foreign interference, where the winning candidate is alleged to have received support from the Chinese consulate.
There is little cost to foreign authoritarians to engage in such operations, and no significant consequences to deter them. Foreign state actors and their Canadian enablers are able to engage in information and influence operations with relative impunity.
The latest allegations about foreign interference in Canada require an immediate government response to stop the further erosion of public trust in our democratic processes.
A non-partisan inquiry into all foreign interference at all levels of government must be held and its focus should include foreign influence operations, disinformation, intimidation, transnational repression and any domestic actors who help facilitate attacks on our democracy.
Transparency and accountability are toxic to those who seek to corrupt our democracy, and the threat of being exposed and held to account is a significant deterrent. A Canadian foreign influence registry would help ensure transparency by requiring individuals and groups acting on behalf of a foreign regime to register with the federal government.
Our election laws must be amended to prevent foreign governments and their proxies from manipulating future nomination processes in vulnerable ridings.
Finally, a full-time task force that includes members of all political parties, civil society experts, and representatives from the media, social media and academic sectors, should be mandated to monitor and expose threats to our democracy and alert parliamentarians to them on a full-time basis.
Never before has the integrity of Canada’s democracy been under such threat. The government must act quickly to formally investigate these recent allegations of foreign interference before even more damage is done.
Marcus Kolga is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad.